Uncategorized | October 05, 2015
A Reading Life
By Christina Bramon
Like my fellow blogger Lise Saffran, I have long been a fan of The Missouri Review. I am an ardent reader of each issue, a supporter, a board member, and for the last year or so, its Web Editor. As Web Editor, part of my job is promoting this year’s Editors’ Prize Contest. I’m happy to announce that The Editors’ Prize deadline has been extended to October 15th! The submission guidelines are here.
This is my first blog for TMR. It came about because this summer I embarked on a half-baked project to reread some of the novels of my youth that I remember adoring—the books that made me an English major 25 years ago. Throughout the summer, I would come to TMR’s offices and regale Kris Somerville every week with my reading adventures. She asked me to blog about them. That was MONTHS ago. The reason I am only starting now is that I have so much to say about the reading life—my reading life—and I’m uncertain that my personal reflections are in any way relevant to other readers out there, although I think that there must be some common ground. And I will state very clearly: I am a reader, not a writer. I do not write creatively although I occasionally make a sudden lunge at it and then sheepishly retreat again.
The act of reading is for me a form of meditation, or maybe prayer. It allows me to step outside of myself and into another world, emerging refreshed and perhaps somewhat wiser. This is what the very best books do for me. I read fiction almost exclusively and of course, not all fiction is pleasant or in some way edifying. Nor should it be. My musings here are not of a critical nature—I’m way out of shape for that kind of thing. All summer long I’ve been talking to myself about how reading changes throughout one’s life and circumstances, and how it stays the same. If you passed me on the street, you probably saw my lips moving.
I remember the exact moment in the fall of 1975 that I learned to read—the moment the words all snapped into focus and I thought, “of course.” Did it really happen that way? No, but that’s how I remember it. By the time I was seven, my mother would drop me off on my own at the public library and let me choose stacks of books to take home. I remember so well the feeling of being alone with all the books in the cool, quiet library. Choosing and sorting and taking them to the desk, where the benignly neglectful librarian would wield her date stamp at the back of each one. (Thank you, Mom. And thank you, kindly librarians everywhere.)
This pattern continued throughout my school years as I haunted the school library and a very quirky local private library which had a huge cache of Victoria Holt. Anyone remember her? Once I began receiving an allowance in about the fifth grade, my mom would drive me to the Waldenbooks in Jefferson City and I would stand in front of the section marked “Classics” and just start picking books off the shelves. I would spend until the money was gone. I still have all those volumes—Dickens, the Brontes, Jane Austen, you get the idea. The canon as it stood in the early to mid 1980s, according to a midwestern bookstore.
As a high school student, I eschewed popular literature with the exception of a purloined copy of The Valley of the Dolls and the lurid V.C. Andrews series. I recall reading Dreiser and Hardy. I got a good grounding in Shakespeare from my high school English teacher. (Thank you, Mr. Shelley.)
I entered Boston University in 1988 with a pre-med concentration. My first English literature class hooked me forever, and pre-med disappeared just as soon as I could finish my biology classes. I had no idea that contemporary literature existed, and thus began my introduction to Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez et al. (I’m picking names at random while looking at my bookshelves). And no one had ever told me about Southern writers! And hey, short stories? Somebody probably made me read “The Lottery” in high school but I don’t recall understanding that they were a real thing. I’m staring at the spine of Andre Dubus’ selected stories right now. I had the pleasure of hearing him read at the Boston Public Library in the late 80s or early 90s.
After graduation I declined several offers to go to graduate school in English and decided to try the “real world” instead. So I became a receptionist. I don’t regret it—I had so much time to read on the job that I started taking graduate classes in English at Harvard’s night school. In a “book to film” class, I discovered Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon and that began a decades long romance with the crime genre. I also read George Eliot for the first time. Middlemarch is my favorite book in the whole world. I had finished my coursework and was writing a thesis on George Eliot when I got fed up and ran away to New York to pursue a more glamorous job, working for the architect I.M.Pei as the communications manager for his firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. If I had a time machine, the one thing I would change in my whole life is this: I would have finished the gosh-darned thesis.
But New York! I loved it so. Everyone wanted to know everything and try everything new: restaurants, clubs, books, movies, show, and exhibits. I stepped up my game when it came to reading contemporary fiction. David Foster Wallace had recently blazed onto the scene. The hot new fiction I was reading then, in the mid to late 90s, are now being taught in college courses. (Whoa. Do I feel old.) But it was a golden age of reading for me—I was young, single, completely independent and I could do whatever I wanted, read whatever I wanted, and oh wow, it was fun. I distinctly remember walking to the Chelsea Hotel for a haircut with Pynchon’s newest in hardback under my arm. I thought I was in heaven.
It’s at this point—me in heaven and everything—when it all changes. But that’s a blog for another day.
And I won’t be doing my job properly if I don’t say it again in closing: Please, please remember to submit to the Editors’ Prize by October 15th. There’s a $5,000 prize for the winner in each genre: poetry, fiction, nonfiction. Please help keep this reader supplied with quality reading.
Christina Bramon is the Web Editor of The Missouri Review.
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